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Saudi Arabia courts tourists with ancient archaeological sites
Posted on 08/02/2019

SocietySaudi Arabia

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To attract tourists, Saudi Arabia must change the reputation of this ruined city in the desert, and its own.

As the Saudi Kingdom tries to move away from its reliance on oil, it's turning to tourism to diversify its economy. Its ancient ruins are an obvious place to start. North of the town of Al Ula lie the ruins of Madain Saleh, a series of rock-hewn tombs, edifices and natural rock formations that have remained largely unknown to the general public for centuries.

Haunted by its reputation

Haunted by its reputation
Giuseppe Masci/123RF

Madain Saleh lies at the foot of the Hijaz Mountains in northern Saudi Arabia beneath a wind-swept desert plateau. The 2,000-year-old settlement was built by the Nabateans, the same pre-Islamic Arab people that built Petra in neighboring Jordan. The series of intricately carved tombs stick out of the barren landscape as if they were dropped from the sky, and according to most visitors the ruins live up to the hype the Saudi government is promoting.

The reason for the site's lack of popularity among foreign and local tourists is two-fold. Firstly, Saudi Arabia is not a destination that inspires confidence in the tourism sector due to its repressive regime, and pushback from conservative voices in government has kept the flow of foreign tourists to a slow trickle. Secondly, the site is plagued by superstitions that it's haunted by jinn, supernatural spirits capable of causing mischief and evil. In the past, the Saudi people have been advised to avoid the area for fear of encountering one, and as a result the ruins have remained largely untouched. Madain Saleh was only designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, and while its been slow to rise to the same status as Petra, billions of euros in investment are hoping to change that.

Changing the narrative

Changing the narrative
Amelie Koch/123RF

From a billion-dollar joint investment between the Saudi government and a French organization to VIP helicopter rides over the site, the pressure to draw international and local tourists to Madain Saleh and other ancient monuments in Saudi Arabia is mounting. While the ruins are incredible, the kingdom has a big job ahead of it overcoming both the site's reputation and its own. Putting a friendly face on a regime known for its human rights abuses and oppressive policies is no easy task, and it remains to be seen if it can be done.